What world leader would have the temerity to face an audience in a wheelchair, uncaring about the optics of appearing frail amid the infirmities of aging?
What global personage would talk openly and candidly about the denigrating treatment of older people, perceived as undeserving of respect and veneration?
Who else but this compassionate but tough-minded person would challenge the effort by millions to use medicine and cosmetic surgery to appear young, as if normal aging could be reversed and not simply accepted and enjoyed?
No mere run-of-the-mill religious leader, but one committed to the humane treatment of the ignored and disrespected, Pope Francis uses his actual and metaphorical pulpit to press the case, as he did in Canada, for the public to pay attention to those relegated to wheelchairs, walkers, canes and caregivers.
The 85-year-old pontiff, slowed and impaired by intestinal surgery, bad knees and sciatica, employs himself not only as an incomparable spiritual figure able to spread his message—but an ordinary person trying to cope with aging.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Starting even before he became pope at age 76, Francis has paid special attention to older people. In his book, “On Heaven and Earth,” he said that ignoring the health needs of older people constituted ‘covert euthanasia’ and the aged often ‘end up being stored away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hung up in the closet during the summer.’”
He differs tremendously, however, from the rest of us. He cannot be discounted.
In Canada, he urged listeners to overcome a bias in favor of the young and able, to the exclusion of senior citizens easily assigned to the harsh cubicle of the invisible and unimportant.
Fairness and compassion demand more of the younger and healthier segment of our population. Brainpower does not diminish due to longevity. Willpower does not dissipate even in the face of impaired mobility.
In 15 speeches intended to provide instruction about aging, according to the New York Times, Francis has “urged people not to ‘hide the frailty of old age’ out of fear of loss of dignity,” advocating that frailty ‘is a teaching for all of us,’ conceivably bringing about an ‘indispensable ‘ “reform in society, because ‘the marginalization of the elderly—both conceptual and practical—corrupts all seasons of life, not just that of an old age.’
Pope Francis never loses his human and moral moorings. He realizes he may have to choose to vacate the papacy in event of inability to serve Roman Catholics throughout the world. He may follow Pope Benedict in seeking a life outside the Vatican. He need not die on the job.
I have always liked and admired the humble Pope Francis. From the very beginning of his papacy, he eschewed the trappings of head of the Roman Catholic Church. He understood the temptation of savoring an extravagant lifestyle to the exclusion of the people he serves. Also, he wanted to challenge the Vatican bureaucracy, particularly its financial dealings.
I have written before about the ravages of aging. I now have a front-row seat at the BayWoods of Annapolis retirement community watching senior citizens confront debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and knee problems. My greatest reward has been empathy. No longer do I pay scant regard and respect.
I do not require Pope Francis’ intervention to adjust my thinking and former bias. But I find it comforting to read his ponderings about the elderly. He has encouraged a conversation well worth having in the public arena.
And I find his willingness to enable the public to see his declining physical condition as inspiring. He is unapologetic about aging and natural deterioration. He is unafraid of being a symbol of resilience.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.